Let's play a game. Sum up an artist in one word. Some are easy, some are slightly more challenging. Take Morrissey for example. Do you go with "miserable," or "intolerable." Paul McCartney. "Innovative" or "regurgitative." Elvis Costello is one of the easier ones. Far be it from me to cast him as a one-trick pony, but most anyone with basic pop knowledge would gravitate toward one theme when summing up Costello. Sardonic. Cloak it any way you want — brash, rebellious, ironic, cynical — wear your thesaurus out coming up with alternatives. The fact remains the same. At his most rollicking, at his most subdued, or at his most seemingly innocuous, there is always an element of nonchalance and a what-does-it-matter attitude in his approach. He feels no inhibitions about making a cynical mockery of the banality of everyone else's concerns and preoccupations.
Take his sophomore album, This Year's Model as exhibit A, may it please the court. Never one to shy away from mocking the materialistic and increasingly uncultured nature of both the pop world and middle-class society, Costello quips "it does not move me / even though I've seen the movie" on the highlight song "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." Perhaps the most famous song on the album is "Radio, Radio," a scathing tirade denouncing the corporate nature of the music industry, which infamously resulted in Costello being banned from late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live in 1977, a ban which lasted until 1989. Though the song was unreleased at the time of his performance, Costello had been specifically barred from performing that song on the show. In one of the most notorious acts of mainstream musical rebellion, long before Kurt Cobain had even touched a guitar and certainly before his band's more-infamous MTV awards performance, Costello played the first few bars of "Less Than Zero" from his debut album before launching into "Radio, Radio." Throughout the album Costello mocked his supporters, his industry backers, and nary shied away from mocking himself.
Or perhaps Costello is a more layered personality than a first listen might suggest. Might a more fitting descriptor be — "multifarious." Certainly in terms of his musical styles it is an appropriate assertion. A true stylistic Renaissance man, on this album alone Costello jumps from pop, punk, new wave/post-punk, rock and roll-revival, and reggae, without missing a figurative beat. Take the thumping new wave staple song "Pump it Up" juxtaposed with jangly bounce of "You Belong to Me." Costello manages to unite the diverse sounds into a consistent and fluid album.
But those two accurate terms are far too narrowly focused to capture what makes Costello a truly great artist — what makes This Year's Model a captivating and enlightening listen. It is a social commentary of a shifting period in British culture, for one. Costello rose to prominence in a time when the classic and arena rock megastars of the 70s were becoming superseded. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were being replaced on the charts by the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Epics about mythical characters and fantastical worlds were no longer all the rage. Instead, biting commentaries scorning the conservative nature of British society and especially government were entering the mainstream. The late 70s signaled the beginning of Thatcherism — accordingly, they also signaled an awakening of a rebellious conscience in the youth of England. Evidently Elvis Costello wasn't the only young Englishman with some grievances to address. But Costello was witty and biting. He had more to say than baselessly condemning the Queen and her "fascist regime," and it said it in a far more appealing fashion. Take the song with arguably the best lyrics on the album, "Night Rally." Seemingly comparing 70s corporatist England to Nazi Germany, Costello tells of his countrymen singing confessions of lamentable acts, "just the sort of catchy little melody / to get you singing in the showers." There is little doubt as to what Costello is referencing. Costello opens with the track with a plot worthy of a dystopian novel:
"I would send out for assistance but there's someone on the signal wire
And the corporation logo is flashing on and off in the sky
They're putting all your names in the forbidden book
I know what they're doing but I don't want to look
But games and wordplay aside, This Year's Model is a solid album. It is excessively difficult to pinpoint any one of Costello's earlier albums as being any better (and certainly none of them are worse) than any of the others. This Year's Model holds the distinction of carry his most recognised songs, to be sure, in the form of "Pump it Up," "Radio, Radio" and "Chelsea." But even among these hits stand a set of unique songs, each one more catchy, witty and stimulating than the last. I reluctantly give it a 4.5, only with the knowledge that it, by and of itself, does not constitute a classic. But it comes awfully close.
Perhaps trying to sum up Costello in one word or another is too divisive. No use in de-emphasising his best aspects just to be concise. Though, if given one more shot, I might have a universally-accepted word to sum up both Costello and the bitingly conscious This Year's Model — brilliant.